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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1 [76:02]
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 (1855-76) [44:31]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn op.56a (1873) [18:39]
Tragic Overture op.81 (1880-81) [12:37]
CD 2 [78:53]
Symphony no.2 in D op.73 (1877) [39:41]
Symphony no.3 in F op.90 (1883) [38:38]
CD 3 [67:58]
Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 (1884-85) [41:37]
Schicksalslied op.54 [16:06]*
Academic Festival Overture op.80 (1880) [09:53]
Ambrosian Singers*,
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. 1989-1991, Abbey Road Studio no.1, London
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92878 [3 CDs: 76:02 + 78:53 + 67:58]

In the 1960s a Brahms cycle by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Sawallisch enjoyed a fair reputation as an energetic, good-at-the-price offering on a mid-price Philips label. The present cycle made no particular impression so far as I recall. The very fact that EMI have licensed it to Brilliant suggests they’ve given up on it as a source of income. I approached this set with no great expectations, therefore.

I started with the Tragic Overture and had a real surprise. It is brisk, almost as brisk as Klemperer whose version, at 12:32, is the fastest I know. It is also superbly taut and very detailed in its phrasing. I must say I love the recording by Karel Ančerl which takes around 14 minutes but brings it off with mesmerizing concentration, but among swifter performances Sawallisch is now my favourite.

What a surprise, then, to find the Haydn Variations so slow and laboured. There is no distinction to the phrasing at all and the slightly ragged start to several variations suggests that, if the conductor was really present at the sessions – as presumably he was – the orchestra had corporately decided, for some reason, to behave as if he wasn’t.

The First Symphony at least sounds as if someone is conducting it, but not very well. After the opening forte Sawallisch inserts a comma, small but enough to disrupt the flow. He does this several times during the introduction. I realise that Furtwängler would have inserted far bigger commas and got away with it, but that’s because he was creating a romantic context. Sawallisch’s general outlook is classical. At its best the Allegro has a certain stately grandeur, but secondary material gets slower and slower and things hang fire badly at times. Similar comments apply to the finale. The middle movements are decently done if you think that’s good enough for such great music.

The Second Symphony is much better. There is a conviction to the playing that I missed in no.1. There are some slackenings of pulse in the first movement which do not wholly ring true but overall the performance has considerable grandeur. What I slightly miss is the feeling you get with Boult that the symphony is unfolded in one unerring sweep.

The curious thing is that some years ago I attended an open rehearsal at La Scala where Sawallisch conducted this symphony with the Orchestra Filarmonica. It was only a token rehearsal. In the first movement the conductor was watchful and made a few comments at the end. Thereafter he got up steam and the finale reminded me of Boult precisely for its sense of overall sweep. It was one of the finest performances of that movement I’ve ever heard. It would seem that Sawallisch, though unfailingly efficient, worked best with an audience behind him and an orchestra in front of him with whom he had a special relationship – the orchestra of La Scala loved him.

The Third Symphony is better still. There is a great deal of power in the opening paragraph. There is still a tendency to pick daisies in the secondary material, but the phrasing of the yodelling wind themes is delightful and it works much better when genuine strength has been created before the relaxation begins, as it hadn’t been in the First Symphony. Sawallisch makes the repeat in this movement, which he didn’t in the first movements of nos.1 and 2. The second movement is gravely paced, but here the conductor can really be heard creating the phrasing. The conductor/orchestra relationship is certainly working here as they explore the music together. The third movement is taken very slowly and meditatively. Personally I prefer something more graciously flowing but since Sawallisch once more draws a very detailed response from the orchestra I shall return to this fairly often. From its own point of view it’s perfect. The finale has a lot of rugged strength, rather like the old Horenstein version I recently heard, but infinitely better played and recorded. The one blot is that the strings’ reference to the opening theme of the symphony, at the very end, is inaudible, thus depriving us of a sense of homecoming.

My real reservation about this generally very fine reading is that Klemperer is better still. Of all the four Brahms symphonies, this is the one which Klemperer unfolds in one single, inevitably evolving paragraph.

Symphony no.4 is unreservedly magnificent. The length of the opening note seems to promise an interventionist approach which doesn’t materialize. Instead we get a sternly tragic, but highly charged account. It doesn’t have the glow of the best Boult performances – unfortunately his late EMI recording isn’t quite in that category – but then it doesn’t try to be warm and glowing. Having chosen a tone of epic grandeur, Sawallisch remains utterly true to this vision from beginning to end.

The Schicksalslied is eloquently performed and follows on from the mood of the symphony very well. The Academic Festival Overture would seem less well placed, but Sawallisch’s brisk, energetic but completely humourless reading seems to want to find an element of tragedy even here. It’s an interesting view but Boult’s jolly romp is surely closer to what was intended.

I promise you I’d made up my mind about these performances before looking up any other reviews, but I see that on their original release only no.4 was received with enthusiasm by Gramophone. Like me, Jonathan Swain was much impressed by its tragic strength. Edward Seckerson and Alan Sanders were no more than respectful about nos. 2 and 3, while the latter critic was utterly dismissive of no.1.

In the days of LP, when boxed sets were a rarity, it was a truism that no one conductor would be likely to embrace the differing moods of all four symphonies equally well, and collectors were advised to shop around. Nowadays complete cycles seem the name of the game, and you might have to buy four of them to get a really fine performance of each symphony. I’ve reviewed several cycles for MusicWeb. The most recent was Janowski on RSB 405, recorded in Liverpool in 1984-6. He is excellent in nos.1 and 3, good in no.2, dud in no.4. Sir Colin Davis (BMG 82876 60388 2) set down strong performances of all four with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra between 1989 and 1993, though his liking for slow finales means that the overall effect is somewhat sober. The real trouble is that you have to buy an unremarkable performance of the violin concerto and boring ones of the two piano concertos at the same time.

I’m not sure about the current availability of Boult. When I reviewed his EMI cycle it was on three separately available CDs in an HMV Classics series sold only in HMV shops. His interpretations of all four symphonies were justly famous and were practically synonymous with Brahms for several generations of British listeners. Unfortunately, in this late cycle only no.2 achieves the vitality and sweep he was capable of in his younger days. The justness of the readings always impresses but I think he is slightly surpassed by Sawallisch in nos.3 and 4. He is perhaps weakest in no.1, where he seems to be having difficulty in fully engaging the orchestra, though compared with Sawallisch’s dire effort he is at least acceptable. If HMV 5 74053 2 can be found it is a great record and a worthwhile supplement to any cycle, containing as it does the Second Symphony plus Dame Janet Baker’s famous recording of the Alto Rhapsody and the two songs for contralto, viola and piano.

Klemperer (EMI GROC 7243 5 62742 2 8), too, is at his weakest in no.1, which hangs fire badly at times, especially in the first movement. As I said above, the truly great performance of the cycle is no.3. No.2 is strong and freer than you might expect. No.4 is very powerful indeed, but there are a number of eccentric touches you have to get used to. I am talking here about mainstream performances in stereo. The highly individual views, often in historical sound, by the likes of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Stokowski, Celibidache and so on are special cases and their admirers won’t need encouragement from me.

So it looks as though you might get Davis or Janowski for no.1, Boult for no.2, Klemperer for no.3 and Sawallisch for no.4. If you must get only one cycle, don’t get Sawallisch or Janowski since each set contains one total dud. On the other hand, if you are limiting yourself to two cycles, then getting both Sawallisch and Janowski seems a possible and inexpensive solution, since you will get at least one good performance of each symphony.

I wonder if Brilliant might not have done better to seek permission to release Sawallisch’s earlier VSO cycle? I never heard this but the German Requiem made at the same time was good and there was an Alto Rhapsody with Aafje Heynis. A box which also included these could be attractive.

Christopher Howell



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